Hands-on Gear Review

The North Face Rolling Thunder 36" Review

Price:  $349 List | $261.71 at Backcountry
Compare prices at 2 resellers
Pros:  Extremely durable, water resistant, bomber frame, easy to pack, decent number of organizational options, many carrying options
Cons:  Heavy, doesn't feature an extendable handle
Bottom line:  One of the best rolling duffels for carrying a lot of bulky items, this one is built to last and stacked with great organizational features.
Editors' Rating:   
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Weight (Pounds):  10.28 pounds (36"/155 liter model)
Size options (Inches):  19", 22", 30", 36"
Volume Size Options (Liters):  33, 40, 80, 155 L
Manufacturer:   The North Face

Our Verdict

The North Face Rolling Thunder series of wheeled luggage is The North Face Base Camp's wheeled sibling, which won our Editors' Choice award for the best duffel bag. The two are made from the same material in the body but the Rolling Thunder has an even burlier material for added reinforcement, along with several of the same pockets and organizational features. The Rolling Thunder is aimed at air travelers who want the durability that the duffel is known for but with the ease of a roller bag, complete with a handful of added features and compartments. We looked at all four volumes that the Rolling Thunder is available in, we focused on the 30" and 36" sizes, which are reflected in our overall review.

The Rolling Thunder performed far better than average during our weather resistance tests and is super easy to load and search through. It offers a nice selection of pockets to help travelers stay organized and its only real downfall, as well as what kept it from being our Editors' Choice for the best-wheeled duffel, is its slightly heavier than average weight.

2018 Product Updates
The Rolling Thunder has been revamped slightly for 2018. See the latest incarnation above and read more about it below!


RELATED REVIEW: The Best Travel Duffel Bags of 2018


Our Analysis and Test Results

Review by:
Ian Nicholson

Last Updated:
Thursday
May 3, 2018

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The 2018 Rolling Thunder vs. the 2017 Version


As far as we can tell, the major change on the new Rolling Thunder is the wheel size and shape. The new wheels are flat on the bottom instead of rounded, allowing for more contact with the ground and hopefully improved traction. The North Face also upped the price of the Rolling Thunder 36" to $349. In the images below, you can see the new version (left) compared to the old version (right).

The North Face Rolling Thunder 2016: Black

Since we haven't tested the latest version of this bag, the following review text pertains to the previous model of the Rolling Thunder.

Hands-On Review of The North Face Rolling Thunder 36


We included the Rolling Thunder 36" because if you are one of the few people who needs a 9458 cubic inch (155 liters) piece of luggage, then we think this model is one of the best. For most people, this bag is too big from a volume perspective, but if you're someone who needs to travel with higher volume items (hopefully low weight/higher volume items), then this bag is tough to beat. It's literally one of the most durable models we've ever tested, featuring the most robust fabrics in our review. Its frame is plenty strong enough for outings where you aren't restrained to 50-pounds, and you can pack this duffel with whatever you'd like.

Unlike most rolling duffels  the Rolling Thunder doesn't feature an extendable handle. The North Face likely did this to save weight on an already heavy bag. Though the bag is long enough to not need much in the way of extension  and the dual grab loops worked respectably well  we still prefer a more traditional extendable handle.
Unlike most rolling duffels, the Rolling Thunder doesn't feature an extendable handle. The North Face likely did this to save weight on an already heavy bag. Though the bag is long enough to not need much in the way of extension, and the dual grab loops worked respectably well, we still prefer a more traditional extendable handle.

Ease of Transport


The Rolling Thunder is an "easy" way to move a huge pile of gear around. Not only is it a step above any non-wheeled model, but it also features larger than average wheels, which roll over unpaved surfaces like grass, cobbled paths, or gravel roads better than most rollers we've used. The only model we tested that featured larger diameter wheels was the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior; as a result of the massive wheels, we were able to roll over uneven ground with ease. There are grab loops on all sides of the Rolling Thunder, which makes it easy to yank it off buses, luggage, carousels, or other above-ground surfaces.

The wheels on the 36" Rolling Thunder are slightly larger than average. These wheels outperformed most rolling bags on the market when the going got "rough"  as they are far easier to pull on uneven terrain like grass or gravel.
The wheels on the 36" Rolling Thunder are slightly larger than average. These wheels outperformed most rolling bags on the market when the going got "rough", as they are far easier to pull on uneven terrain like grass or gravel.

The only thing we didn't love about the most massive size (Rolling Thunder 36") is that it didn't feature an extendable handle. Instead, it features two angled grab loops that perform just fine and are much better than the previous versions that have un-angled loops. However, we prefer an actual handle, which gives the user more leverage and control. We understand the reason The North Face has designed this bag, which is to reduce weight on what is an already heavy duffel. However, this does affect a person's ability to manage the bag when it's fully loaded. The North Face Rolling Thunder, along with the other smaller sizes, does feature a super stiff, durable and comfortable extendable handle. The Rolling Thunder models come with a strap to help attach other luggage to the outside, which makes toting gear around much more manageable.

Our entire testing team dug the large D-shaped opening on the Rolling Thunder. We found this plus-sized duffel exceptionally easy to pack and loved the two large mesh zippered pockets underneath the lid to help keep us organized.
Our entire testing team dug the large D-shaped opening on the Rolling Thunder. We found this plus-sized duffel exceptionally easy to pack and loved the two large mesh zippered pockets underneath the lid to help keep us organized.

Ease of Packing


Ease of packing and organization are one of the primary reasons to buy a model from the Rolling Thunder collection. All volumes are easy to pack and scored above average; in fact, it bested our Editors' Choice, the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled. The Rolling Thunder features a large "D" shaped opening and a deep compartment that is easy to load to the brim.

This photo shows the oversized external zippered pocket on the 36" Rolling Thunder. We loved this pocket for a place to pack paperwork  plane tickets  magazines  a book  or anything else we wanted close at hand.
This photo shows the oversized external zippered pocket on the 36" Rolling Thunder. We loved this pocket for a place to pack paperwork, plane tickets, magazines, a book, or anything else we wanted close at hand.

Two mesh zippered pockets are located under the lid and are excellent for keeping track of easy to lose items. The 36" Rolling Thunder features a separate compartment, which can be accessed by a zipper near the top of the bag, increasing organization. All the Rolling Thunder models feature a flat (ish) pocket along the outside of the duffel (ideal for small items or travel documents), as well as a smaller zippered pocket near the top.

We find that the zippered pocket on the handle end of the bag serves as a great place to pack dirty shoes or wet clothes.
We find that the zippered pocket on the handle end of the bag serves as a great place to pack dirty shoes or wet clothes.

The Rolling Thunder features compression straps that help make the bag more manageable when not loaded all the way up, and also help minimize the stress on the zippers.

Durability


The Rolling Thunder is freaking tough. Made of the same material as the tried and true The North Face Base Camp Duffel (1000D polyester laminate), it has been reinforced by an even burlier fabric (1680D nylon instead of the Base Camp's ultra burly 840D) that is as stout as we've seen. We think the Rolling Thunder is the most durable roller in our fleet and one of the burliest pieces of wheeled luggage we have ever seen. It's tougher than the similar feeling fabric found on the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled and bests the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior and Osprey Ozone Convertible with ease.

Weight


At 10 pounds 4 oz for the 155L size (the 36-inch size reviewed here), weight is the primary downside of this model, as well as the rest of the Rolling Thunder collection. While it's not significantly heavier than most wheeled bags, they are heavier. But, for that extra pound, you do get a lot of durability, pockets, a robust frame, and weather resistance. Unfortunately, that's also 1-2 pounds of your gear that you don't get to bring. When comparing sizes, the Rolling Thunder 80-liter model weighs in at 9 pounds 14 ounces, while the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled 120-liter contender was 8 pounds 10 ounces. If you were to opt for the 70-liter Black Hole model, the bag would weigh 7 pounds 8 ounces.

All loaded up  zipped and ready to go.
All loaded up, zipped and ready to go.

Weather Resistance


The Rolling Thunder is highly water resistant. During our side-by-side testing, our team sprayed all the pieces in our review with water for one minute. The Rolling Thunder came out near the top of the review. It features nearly the same water resistance as the Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel and The North Face Base Camp Duffel, and was more water resistant than the Marmot Long Hauler. That said, it is WAY more water resistant than 99% of wheeled bags out there; so if water resistance is an important factor to you, this roller is worth considering.

Best Applications


The Rolling Thunder 36" is a behemoth, but has a robust enough frame to handle its massive pack-able space. While for most potential users the 36" model is best for large-volume/lower-weight type gear and equipment, as it already weights just over 10 pounds leaving only 40 pounds of stuff to fill this bags review-biggest 9458 in3 (155 liters) volume before hitting most airlines 50-pound limit. It's just okay to use as a dolly as the Rolling Thunder 36" doesn't feature an extendable handle meaning most of the time you have to completely attach another bag via straps or other means rather than just balancing a separate bag on an extended handle.

Value


At $349, this model isn't cheap, but we found it to be a reasonable value. This bag features the thickest and most durable fabrics and construction of any model in our review, meaning it's built to last. It also doesn't cut any corners when it comes to features and design, offering plenty of pockets compartments to help with organization. Its only real downside is that it weighs in at 10 pounds four ounces, which means you are that much more likely to have to pay excess baggage fees (unless you happen to be carrying higher-volume/lower-weight type equipment).

Conclusion


The North Face Rolling Thunder 36" is a super sweet wheeled duffel that is packed full of rad features. It nearly earned a Top Pick award but was just barely edged out by its heavier weight and lack of an extendable handle. It offers some excellent advantages and will last longer than almost any piece of luggage we've seen. It is extremely water resistant, super easy to pack, has a nice amount of additional pockets for easier organization, and can be wheeled across uneven surfaces with ease. If you need to move a lot of bulk and a 50-pound weight limit doesn't restrict you, the Rolling Thunder 36" is a rad option, especially if you need the capacity.

Volume Options


You can find this roller in a 19, 22, 30, and 36-inch version, ranging from 33-155 liters, and costing $239-$349.

The four sizes of the Rolling Thunder series of wheeled luggage.
The four sizes of the Rolling Thunder series of wheeled luggage.

What Size Should I Get?
The 19 and 22" models meet most carry-on specifications and are ideal for two to four-day trips. The 19" can fit under the seat in front of you and is perfect for use as a carry-on, in addition to another bag that you might want to check (or just as its own - as a carry-on). The 30" is our tester's favorite sized wheeled bag and weighs in at around 50 pounds when we packed it to the brim. The 36" size is excellent for massive or bulky items like lots of insulation for a winter trip, wetsuits, boots, fins, and the like.
Ian Nicholson

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Most recent review: May 3, 2018
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Rating:  
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